Wednesday, July 13, 2011
My first trip to New York was with my family to see my Uncle Michael guest conduct at Carnegie Hall. Judging by the old pictures it was January '94, my freshman year of college. I remember being amazed by the size of the city and overwhelmed by the complexity of the subway system. I would return each November for the next three years to attend the International Hotel and Restaurant Show with a group of students from Purdue. Each year I became more and more comfortable navigating the great metropolis on my own. Not just getting around the city and navigating the subway system but also pushing through crowds, getting tickets to shows, finding the great restaurants, hanging out in the local clubs, negotiating deals at hotels (I was a hospitality major after all). When I was working in Connecticut I even drove through the city to visit my Godfather, David, who was living in the Bronx. The last time I visited was on a vacation with my Dad and my good friend Cliff. I felt completely comfortable showing Cliff, who had never been to New York, around the city. I've always loved being in New York. After the accident, I thought I would never go back...
The idea to take a trip to New York came up about a year ago. We had just returned from our family vacation to Bellingham, WA. Due to a flight fiasco on Frontier each member of my family had been given $200 travel vouchers that had to be used within a year. I had decided that I wanted to take a vacation on my own, without family constantly hovering, simply to see if I could do it. New York, while aggressive, seemed like the right place. I could stay with my Godfather, visit some friends in Brooklyn, and maybe catch a show or two. I'd already done all of the "touristy" things in the past so I wouldn't feel the need to be constantly on the go. I thought about doing it in the fall, but then the fall turned into winter and I said I'd go in the spring. Then the spring started to pass by and my family started to talk about going to New York for summer vacation. I realized that if they were going to use their vouchers to go to New York then it would just be silly not to go with them, plus I was far more likely to use the voucher if I went at the same time.
I know that I've mentioned before that traveling with a disability, especially flying, is very difficult for me. The hardest part is actually the weeks and days before the flight where I start to obsess about how difficult it's going to be. (It's always easier than I think, and even though I know that, I still struggle with it.) As the trip drew closer the weather got hotter and more humid, which started to affect how my prosthetics fit. My legs were shrinking faster and my left leg began slipping off after a few hours. I started worrying about how difficult it was going to be to trust my legs in New York and I started to think that I had made a huge mistake in deciding to take this trip in the summer. But I had committed to this, and now my family was looking forward to it, so I had no option to back out.
With the exception of a one hour delay for our connection from Milwaukee to New York our flights went smoothly which, considering my previous experiences with Frontier, was a nice surprise. We arrived at my Godfather's home on Staten Island. A two hundred year old three story house that sits on a high hill with two steep flights of steps (without hand rails) in the front of the house. I stared up at the house, and the steps, wondering how I was going to make this work. From conversations with my Godfather I knew that the bathroom and bedroom on the second floor would be accessible for my level of mobility, but to get there I would likely have to take my legs off, push my way backwards up the winding staircase to the second floor, and then someone would have to bring my wheelchair up. But, if I was going to stay here with the rest of my family, I would first have to prove that I could get up the steps to the house.
The issue of where I would stay in New York had added greatly to my stress in the weeks before the trip. My family kept asking me where I was going to stay, but I couldn't answer until I had physically seen the options. I could stay at a family friend's apartment in the theatre district while he was out of town, but while his apartment building was accessible, the bathtub/shower had a glass door on it that made it dangerous, if not impossible, for me to transfer. I could stay with my friends in Brooklyn, but they didn't have a hand held shower head, which would make it next to impossible to reach everything that should be cleaned each day. (I'm sure I don't need to go into detail.) Staying at my Godfather's, even with the challenges that come with an old three story house, was the ideal option, but I just wouldn't know until I could be there.
After taking a minute to size up the steps, and assess any other options to approach the house (there were none in sight, but we later determined that approaching from the back of the house was easier), I started up the steps. My Godfather, not having seen me handle this type of obstacle and being slightly over protective, placed his hands on my hips in an attempt to help me stabilize. This actually restricted my range of motion to the point that I couldn't gain my balance, which caused me to pitch forward each time I climbed a step. I asked him to let go and was then able to climb the rest of the steps without incident. A neighbor from across the street witnessed this and came over to suggest that we make the approach from the back, but by then I was already halfway up the steps. We did use the back entrance for the remainder of the trip.
As expected, the house came with a lot of physical challenges, but the doors were wide enough for me to maneuver around in my wheelchair when I didn't have my legs on, and we were able to work out any accessibility issues in the bathroom. Not wanting me, or anyone else, to drop the money on a shower bench that I would only use for one week, my Godfather purchased a small step stool that was a perfect fit for his bathtub. With my good mobility and balance I was able to make this work as a shower bench during the trip. Each day ended with a workout as I pushed myself up the narrow, winding stairs, and each morning began with the reverse. It was also a workout for my Dad and my Godfather as they each took turns moving my wheelchair up and down the steps each day and also had to get it to and from the car every time we went out. And boy did we spend a lot of time out!
Our first full day on vacation was spent on Liberty and Ellis Islands. The wheelchair came in very handy here. There is normally a very long wait to get through security and onto the ferry to Liberty Island. However, just like at the airport or Disney World, as soon as the security staff saw me in the wheelchair, my family and I were moved to the head of the line!
Getting around both islands was actually pretty easy. Due to the distances, I used the wheelchair for the majority of the time, but I did get up for a few photo ops. The most difficult part was navigating through the crowd in the cafeteria on Liberty Island; and the tables and benches in the eating area outside, many of which were bolted to the ground and did not allow enough space for my wheelchair to pass. A very strange, hippie type character, noticed me looking for my family and came over saying "Where are you going? I'll move anything you need out of the way!" He then proceeded to walk in front of me and moved a few things out of my way that really weren't a problem, but he obviously wanted to help.
The following day we went to Times Square, and more specifically the Toy's R' Us in Times Square! This was my first real experience taking the wheelchair down into the subway system and maneuvering through the Manhattan streets. There are a limited number of accessible subway stations in New York, which made getting to some destinations difficult, but the South Ferry station and Times Square are pretty major hubs. It took a while to find the elevators and ramps, because they are poorly marked, plus you are supposed to get the station attendants attention so they can open a special gate for wheelchairs (which can take a lot of time), but after that first day I was thinking that subway travel by wheelchair really wasn't that difficult.
Being in the wheelchair in the crowds on the VERY uneven sidewalks and streets was hard to handle. There was no way around it; walking those distances in that heat in those crowds would have exhausted me to the point that there would be no enjoyment in the vacation. My stomach was unsettled for days from the constant jostling, but it was worth it to access the city and spend time with the family. I also had to accept help, allowing Dad and Mom to push the wheelchair at times when my arms were too tired. That afternoon we went to see the Adam's Family musical, which was absolutely hilarious, and we're pretty sure that we witnessed Brooke Shield's first performance as Morticia! She was simply wonderful.
The following day it seemed like we saw more of the bowels of New York (subway pictured above) than we did the actual city. It was a rainy day and we intended to take the subway to Rockefeller Center. This would require us to take two different subway lines, which meant finding a transfer point at an accessible station that would have elevators to reach the different platforms. I downloaded a subway app to my phone so that we could easily navigate the system. Unfortunately the app didn't show which trains weren't running on the weekend. We wasted about forty minutes waiting for a train that never came and then headed out into the rainy streets to cross town to Rockefeller Center. After we'd seen what we wanted to see in that area, we headed through the rain, which was coming down steadily now, to Grand Central Station to catch a train to Brooklyn where a friend of mine was cooking dinner for my family. Sadly, the subway system foiled us again.
I had told Amanda (my friend in Brooklyn) which subway line we intended to take, and she confirmed that I had the right train. Unfortunately, all trains going from Grand Central Station to accessible stations in Brooklyn had been shut down for maintenance over the holiday weekend! This wasn't clearly communicated, so we lost more time waiting for trains that never came. We finally got directions to take a train back to Times Square (where I then got "lost" due to an elevator that was poorly marked, thus requiring me to get off on every platform to find the rest of my family), and then transfer to an express train that would stop at the accessible station we needed in Brooklyn. From there we had to find a cab, which turned into a whole other fiasco; the driver, who didn't speak much english, looked at me and asked how to get to the address I'd given him! We finally arrived for dinner an hour and a half late. After dinner, we ordered a cab to take us back to the Staten Island Ferry. Thinking it would be easier and faster than the subway. When we were about three blocks away from the Ferry Terminal the cab driver, who had apparently moved here from Egypt about three weeks before and didn't speak much english, turned to me and said "I'm not sure where we are going. Can you tell me how to get there?" Thank goodness Dad was able to recognize the Ferry Terminal, which was the big, well lit, building three blocks ahead of us at the end of the street.
The Fourth of July was exactly the relaxing kind of holiday that I needed. We lounged around my Godfather's house on Staten Island and played several games of Euchre (an Indiana card game, if you've never heard of it). The best part of my vacation was spending a couple of hours teaching my Niece Madeline how to play Cribbage. After a great cookout we headed down to the shore line to watch the New York fireworks on the other side of the harbor. The show, even from that distance, was amazing.
The following day the family and I went to the Museum of Natural History, saw the T-Rex, explored Central Park, went to Tiffany's (where Madeline told me she "wished she could buy everything"...we bought nothing), and met my Godfather and another college friend of my parents for dinner at Carmine's (a family favorite). While in Central Park we came upon the Imagine Mosaic (pictured above) in Strawberry Fields. As I approached the mosaic I was surprised at the depth of emotion that I could feel saturating the area. It was very moving. We also visited the Alice In Wonderland statue (also pictured above) and the Balto statue. In the process of searching for Balto we encountered an area where the path went up stairs that were bordered on either side by trees with low hanging branches. Thinking I was smarter than the park, I got out of my chair and walked around the trees and up the hill. At the top of the hill I discovered that I was separated from my family by a fence that didn't appear to have any gaps nearby. (FOILED AGAIN!) The fence was low enough that I could climb over it, which required an interesting feat of amputee acrobatics that so concerned my family that nobody thought to take a picture, and Dad almost let the wheelchair roll back down the steps! Still, I made it over the fence. (So there, PARK! HA!)
The next day my family headed back to Indianapolis, while I stayed to spend more time with my friend Amanda (from Brooklyn) and my Godfather. Amanda and I spent the day in the city visiting Wall Street, Federal Hall, and Ground Zero (pictured above, note the construction of the new tower), before finally arriving in Times Square to see about getting tickets to an afternoon matinee. I really wanted to see the Spider-Man musical (out of simple fascination to see how they turned Spider-Man into a musical), but my Godfather had tried for several days to get tickets and it had been impossible. Amanda convinced me that we should still stop by the box office. As luck would have it I was able to get tickets, 9th row center orchestra on the aisle, for half price (which is their discount for people with disabilities and one companion)! The first half of the show wasn't very good (if you've heard the reviews then that doesn't come as much of a shock), but the second half of the show was absolutely fantastic. Spider-Man landed next to me twice and shot me with a web! (It was really just a handful of thin white streamers, but the effect was cool.)
I spent the last day of my vacation with my Godfather, which is a rare treat and something I've been wanting to do ever since I was in the hospital. We were both pretty exhausted from the previous several days. We spent most of the day just relaxing at his house and talking. That night we had dinner together at Virgil's (another family favorite near the theatre district) and then went to a performance of Cirque Du Soleil at Radio City Music Hall. It was the perfect way to wrap up the vacation. The next day, after a five hour layover in Milwaukee, I returned to Indianapolis with the knowledge that I can still take full advantage of most of what New York has to offer. It's far more difficult than it once was, and I will always need a companion with me if I'm going to be running around the city, but it's nice to know that I can still enjoy myself there!